When you’re taking care of a friend or loved one, it’s easy to forget about your own needs. And it’s not surprising why. You may be spending a lot of time helping with all sorts of tasks, such as shopping, cooking, paying bills and driving to doctor appointments. So it may seem like there’s little time for you. But it’s important to remember that keeping yourself healthy, emotionally and financially, is key to being able to continue supporting your friend or loved one.
According to a study by Mental Health America (MHA) and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), about 8.4 million Americans are caregivers to an adult with a mental health condition, such as bipolar disorder. About 75% of these caregivers report feeling high levels of emotional stress. Could you be one of them? Here are some signs to look for:
Maybe you’ve seen some of the telltale signs of stress and you’re wondering what to do about it. You may be tempted to dismiss it as “just part of my role” as a caregiver and try to ignore it. Or, you could believe that focusing on your own needs is in some way selfish. Looking a little deeper at your thoughts around self-care can be a good first step. After you do, you can try out these strategies for making the stress more manageable:
This could be in the form of a support group or a helpful neighbor or friend. A regular meeting with people who understand what you’re going through can be encouraging. Day-to-day help from other family members, friends or neighbors can relieve some of the burden. When asking for help, be sure to make it specific and think about who you’re asking. For example, if you know of a family member who makes frequent trips to the grocery store, ask her to pick up some items for your loved one while she’s there.
It may seem that there is no way you can squeeze in a few minutes for yourself, but you should find ways to take some time off. “Respite care,” or a break for the caregiver, is important to make sure that you are keeping your stress in check and restoring your energy. There may be community or faith-based programs you can look into for support. The National Respite Locator Service is a resource that can help you find respite services in your area.
Exercise. Sleep. Visits to the doctor. Eating right. These are just as important for you as they are for your loved one. Of course, it’s important to be realistic. Think about setting small, manageable goals for establishing a sleep routine and staying active and healthy. Maybe you can start with a walk around the block a few times a week or scheduling a physical if you haven’t had one for a while.
According to the study by the MHA and NAMI, about half of caregivers report feeling alone. Sometimes a short chat with a friend who is empathetic can be a good reminder that there are people out there who care about you. Taking the time to vent to someone who is understanding may be just the boost you need.
People with bipolar disorder often have mood swings. They may also engage in risky behavior, like drinking or spending too much, or having reckless sex. This can take a big toll on relationships between family members. One of the most important parts of managing symptoms of bipolar disorder is connecting with a doctor who can prescribe a medication. Another part of the treatment plan can be family therapy. Through therapy, families can get educated about bipolar disorder, learn communication skills and find out about problem-solving techniques. In the meantime, you can read more about bipolar depression here.